Sheila McNulty Will tar sands continue? Follow the money

Even as the world’s oil and gas companies continue to tap into Canada’s oil sands, the movement against using the carbon-intensive fuel generated from them continues to grow. ForestEthics, which has been campaigning against the use of oil sands-generated fuel, says it now has 10 companies who have publicly taken action against the use of oil sands or other high-impact fuels.

The campaign has some big names involved. And some of the comments made by those signing up are quite strong. Tod Arbogast, Avon’s vice president of sustainability and corporate responsiblity, said in a letter to the cosmetic company’s transport and logistics service providers:

We are particularly concerned about the risks that climate change poses to the global economy and to our individual businesses. While we are taking many steps to reduce our carbon footprints, we are eager to include our supply chain partners in this effort…

We would like to work with you, our service providers, to improve the environmental footprint of our supply chain.  We feel that significant steps can be made in avoiding high carbon, high impact fuels (for example, those from tar sands), eliminating unnecessary miles, improving efficiency, shifting services to lower carbon modes and sourcing low carbon fuels. We believe that additional action to reduce carbon emissions from our transportation services is urgently required.

Avon does not want to alienate anyone, and is quick to say it is not boycotting the fuel, just suggesting against the use of high-carbon fuels. Here is what Mr Arbogast told Energy Source:

In our commitment to global environmental stewardship, we are taking many steps to reduce our company’s carbon footprint.  We encourage our supply chain partners to join these efforts by minimising consumption of fuel and to focus on sourcing fuel with the lowest environmental impacts and embedded carbon footprints, as well as increased fuel efficiency, lower transport miles and lower emissions.

This strategy, however, does not encompass a boycott. We recognise the vast resources in Canada, and specifically Alberta with respect to tar sands, and their abundant value. We also understand the complexities of extracting and refining bitumen. In light of this, we share the interest of the citizens of Alberta of the continued restoration of the forests affected by tar sands and the ongoing development of cleaner methods to refine the oil.

So the campaign is slow going – in public anyway. But the fact that companies are continuing to press against the use of the high-carbon fuel is interesting, particularly since the movement against carbon seems to have otherwise disappeared. Indeed, even the Obama Administration has resisted pressure to stop the construction of new pipelines to bring the fuel into the US.

But Aaron Sanger, director of US Campaigns at ForestEthics, has this to say:

Large buyers of fuel and transportation services are strengthening their resolve against Canada’s dirty tar sands oil. The US market for this increasingly controversial product is becoming more uncertain.

That may be so, on a limited basis. But the movement remains too far under the radar to impact the investment decisions into the oil sands.

Just this week, BP, the UK oil company, confirmed it was going to move forward in the region despite earlier efforts to stay away. The oil companies are betting the momentum against their fuel will never be such that it will actually block the sale. As Shell has said, there will be a market for the fuel - if not in the US, then beyond. Sadly for efforts to curb carbon emissions, that is probably true.